October 2015
More photos here

Saturday 24th October
It's been seven years since my last (and first) trip to Berlin. I made a Berlin page back then, which has unfortunately stagnated a bit, due to a lack of visits, amongst other reasons. No special exhibitions are prompting this visit, just my current 'things' for the Flemish primitives (well-represented in the Gemäldegalerie) and Caspar David Friedrich. This is my 10th trip this year, which might be a record that will remain unbroken, as this rate seemed to be overdoing it a bit, especially around the peak in the Spring, with only weeks between flights.

A 1.15 flight today, from Heathrow so a longer journey, on three tube lines, than with Gatwick, on the overground train. But enough with the tedious home-turf travel details... At Tegel airport you turn left out of the customs and eventually reach a patch of bus stops. There are a few choices, but ours was the TXL JetExpressBus to Alexanderplatz. In comparison with the hoop-jumping of various types required by Italian bus companies it was refreshing just buying a ticket from a conductor. We got off at the Unter den Linden/Friedrichstraße stop and made our way down Friedrichstraße to the Westin Grand, booked at the recommendation of a tame art-history-tour tsar of my acquaintance. It turned out to be a mighty ritzy joint. The room is a good size, well-appointed*, quiet and with a fine view out the window over a large autumnal garden. On the (considerable) downside the WiFi is not free, and is €15 per day. I can't remember the last time I was asked to pay for hotel WiFi. And €15!? They're having a laugh. Also the breakfast is extra and costs €32. Each. Amazeballs!

After unpacking we did a quick recce of the area to find likely places for breakfast. We soon found ourselves in the lovable column-fest of Gendarmenmarket and trying a restaurant called Amici, which turned out to be a real find. Jane's fine fresh mozzarella and rocket salad starter had a pot of very superior pesto, my cream of tomato soup was darn near perfect, and the pizzas just right in the chewy/crispy department. Add some good light panna cotta and strong beverages and you've got two happy travellers slowly strolling around the peaceful streets of central Berlin and heading for an early night.

*The highlights being the poddy coffee machine, the logical light switches, the complementary bath robe and slippers, provision of a face flannel and a bottle of water (every day). Also green soap shaped like a leaf.

Sunday 25th October
To Charlottenburg, involving a walk to the Friedrichstraße S-Bahn station that would, we hoped, provide a breakfast venue. And a little way up Unter den Linden we found a little place doing fruhstucks where orange juice, croissants and jam, yoghurt and fruit, and tea and coffee could be had for €20 for the two of us.

Charlottenburg Palace and gardens was a treat, but a confusing one. One ticket gets you in everywhere, but it's not immediately obvious, or clearly explained, where everywhere is. The are two entrances into the main palace, each of which gives access to a different sequence of rooms, and each sequence ends in an exit which is a stout closed door with a handle and no sign. The new pavilion in the gardens is a big draw, being an unglitzy but grand little building by Schinkel containing paintings by Caspar David Friedrich, but it isn't obvious how to get in, or that your ticket to the palace covers entrance here. The palace itself was as full of gilt plasterwork, mirrors, portraits of people in wigs and Wattau paintings as you'd imagine, but not too overpowering and on the whole likeable and tastefully done. With some landscape paintings too. Impressive displays of autumn colours in the gardens also.

The orangery cafe had tasty lunches, if overworked staff. Here I discovered the pleasure of flame cake, a German take on pizza. Also new and delightful was weissbier wackily flavoured with grapefruit. And the almond pastry bought from a takeaway place in the Friedrichstraße station was delightfully marzipany.

In the evening on our stroll, taken in the dark due to the time of year, we succeeded, where we'd failed last night, in finding the Fassbender and Rauch chocolate shop. It's big, and had come to my attention when Googling "marzipan Berlin". I bought a packet of toasted shapes, a bag of little potatoes and a small bar covered in dark chocolate. We'll see. Looking for an Indian veggie restaurant up by the Brandenberg Gate we found it, but then found a more likely looking place called the Bombay Spice and struck very lucky. And spicy.

Monday 26th October
We breakfasted at Brotzeit, a more trendy and glassy place amongst car showrooms on the corner of Unter den Linden and Friedrichstraße this morning - an almond croissant for me and slices of dark bread with cheese for Jane. Then up to the tourist office to get our three-day museum passes. Not much opens on Monday so we'd decided on the Nikolaikirche, Berlin's oldest church, rebuilt after bombing and now a museum, and open on Monday. To get there we walked down Unter den Linden onto the museum island and right. The whole length of these roads down to Alexanderplatz is one long stretch of barriers, road digging, cranes, pipes  and building work. Not a photo-worthy vista in any direction was to be had unspoiled. The area around the Nikolaikirche is called Nikolaiviertel. An effort has been made to make it as medieval and quirky as it once was, but it's still more 20th than 14th century. Inside the church is clean and airy, but not very churchy. Lots of new paint and old bits of stones but not much atmosphere. Outside after we found a tea shop called TeaGschwendner, with an impressive range of flavours of redbush - twenty-three in fact. I chose three with cinnamon in common - plum pudding, an orange and clove one, and one with almond and cardamom. The cold, if sunny, weather here had caused me to regret not bringing a scarf and so a shop behind the church selling nothing else was seemingly heaven sent. A tasteful short small-checked one was found there for me and bought, from a bewildering selection. Looping back via Alexanderplatz brought us near the Marienkirche, a much more pleasing and churchy experience, with more colour and art. And wall paintings even.

Returning back along the Unter den Linden building site (see below right), lunch was taken where we'd had breakfast yesterday, and was a flame cake like I'd had at Charlottenburg only nicer, with tomato and without spinach.

Having decided that the hotel's room WiFi charges were a rip-off I thought that I could maybe use the free service in the lobby to put some photos up on Facebook this evening, but no, the connection was so slow/bad/limited(?) that even this could not be achieved. You might remember that I mentioned a few days ago that the soap in the bathroom here was green and leaf-shaped. Nothing too contentious or redolent of madness there, you'd think, but tonight I noticed that it's now pale blue. There are greeny tinges to suggest that it's gradually changing colour, but it's worrying  nonetheless, if probably not a mental health issue.

Tuesday 27th October
After breakfast at Brotzeit again Jane and I went separate ways - she to look at modern rubb ... art and me to the Gemäldegalerie. The first few rooms are German and only really get good with Cranach, including a very Boschy triptych and two of his sly-looking small-bosomed Venuses. A disappointing lack of Dürer  goodness here, but then comes room IV - another of my favourite gallery rooms of the year. It has more Rogier van der Weydens than you'll see elsewhere in one place, including the Miraflores and Middelburger altarpieces, the latter cunningly has a workshop version of its left-hand wing hung to its left. There are eight by Rogier here, of which just three are workshop. A disappointingly ordinary van Eyck here, but room 4 next door has one of his best in the Madonna in the Church, and a pair of good portraits, next to Petrus Christus's striking Portrait of a Young Woman, his only portrait of a female, according to the audio guide. (The sequence of smaller rooms with Arabic numerals runs parallel to the main Roman numeral ones, but I couldn't discover why. Lesser works? Smaller ones?) Room V has a couple of mediocre Memlings, but two very different, and very wonderful, Adorations by Hugo van der Goes. The following rooms do nothing to counter my lack of enthusiasm for post-Memling Flemish stuff. Some ordinary Breughels and then (sigh) the statutory excess of Rubens, alleviated only by a trio of fine and characterful van Dyke biggies. The many Dutch rooms that followed lacked arresting works, I thought. Even the Rembrandts, of which there are many, went by in a blur, maybe because there were so many. And then suddenly a room of Canaletto, Guardi and Tiepolo. After which it's backwards through the Italian centuries. A highlight here was a Tintoretto Madonna and Child with Saints Luke and Mark. Then a highly linger-worthy room with Bellinis, a Cima and a pair of Carpaccio goodies, including the weird Lamentation over the dead Christ. A fine large Crivelli Enthroned Madonna and Saints dominates the next room, which has some Vivarini panels too. The original Filippo Lippi Adoration in the Forest from the Medici palace chapel is in the next room, with a Piero dei Pollaiuolo Annunciation that's both perspective-dominated and very jazzy. So into the last room, which has a Giotto panel from Ognissanti in Florence and a lovely early Gentile da Fabriano. Lunch in the museum's cafe was tomato ravioli in a pesto sauce with a weissbier. Some postcards and books were bought and a puzzlement engendered that I could have missed the two Vermeers. (I later checked to see if they might have been on loan, but no.)

Then I walked back to the hotel, to find a bag containing a cake from J hanging from my door handle. It was star-shaped and dark and had been labelled as apple and cinnamon, but to me it tasted like a chocolate sponge. Disappointing. A stroll up to the Nikolaivertel in the evening and and then back to Amici, the restaurant from our first evening, for the cream of tomato again, for me, and some tongue-tingling penne al arrabbiata.

Wednesday 28th October
To the Alte Nationalgalerie this morning, which is devoted to art of the 19th Century, mostly for their Caspar David Friedrich goodies, but also for Böcklin and, as it turned out, to fall for new names Carl Spitzweg (for his Venetian street view and use of odd thin portrait format canvases) and Carl Blechen (for being like Friedrich, but less darkly).  There are three floors of galleries which progress roughly chronologically from the top. The room devoted to Friedrich gets added to my list of the best gallery rooms of the year, with several old faves, a new fave, and one old fave inexplicably missing, except as a postcard. Lots of great stuff in other rooms too, also including a room of French Impressionists, if you like that sort of thing. My second best was the room devoted to Schinkel's architecture-dominated paintings. Constable, Corbet and Menzel dominate the less-interesting ground floor, but there's a Hammershoi and some weird symbolists in one room too. A sore lack of catalogues for sale in English somewhat dulled our pleasure but you can't, as has been said before, have everything. The exhibition and viewing platform devoted to the new Humboldt rebuilding had been explored by Jane yesterday. She sponsored a brick then and, rightly, thought I'd be interested and need to visit too, chat with the friendly chap explaining the project next to the spiffy model of the area and take photos from the viewing terraces.

An evening trip to KaDaWe in search of unusual chocolate, marzipan and redbush tea flavourings. The latter not found, except for a somewhat expensive tin flavoured with almond. A somewhat tortuous train journey there made a longish walk back attractive. To Amici for a final bowl of their excellent cream of tomato, which I had to return as it was not hot. The first time time I've ever sent something back in a restaurant! The replacement was well up to scratch, as was the spaghetti al pomodoro.

Thursday 29th October
A last breakfast at Brotzeit was followed by a comfortably unfull bus to the airport, a long queue at BA check-in due to only one desk being open, initially, and a very short wait in the lounge, in the company of Channel 4 News' Lindsey Hilsum, which was worrying as she usually reports from more war-torn zones. Home safe and swiftly though, in time for a late lunch even.

Final impressions - Berlin is an oddly uncrowded city, where seats seem always to be had on buses and trains and where queues and oppressive crowds are almost unknown. We vow to leave many less than seven years until our next visit. And to try not to stay in a hotel that charges more for one breakfast than two dinners, and which charges for wifi at all.





Venice // Florence // London // Berlin // Trips